Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Missing Mr. Preakness
By Paul Moran Special to ESPN.com
"It's the first public appearance of the Kentucky Derby winner," Chick Lang explained of the Preakness Stakes in an interview published in the Thoroughbred Times a decade or so ago, "And that's not to sound flip or smart. When the horses go to Louisville, they're all equal. But when the Derby winner comes to Pimlico, the second jewel in the Triple Crown, he's now part of racing history.
"When I was younger, I'd go to Churchill Downs, and it probably didn't sit too well, but I'd have a few bourbons with the hardboots there. And we'd get to drinking, and sure enough they'd talk about how the Preakness would never be the Kentucky Derby.
"And I'd say, 'Well let me tell you something, pal. The greatest horse in the history of racing didn't run in the Derby, but he ran in and won the Preakness: Man o' War. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.'"
What Col. Matt Winn was to the Kentucky Derby, what Barnum was to Bailey, before people in suits introduced terms to racing like "strategic initiative" and only unabashed shirtsleeve promotion brought people to the races, Charles John Lang, known to anyone who has ever walked into Pimlico as Chick, is to the Preakness. They are joined, synonymous for all time.
Chick Lang reveled in this week. During a lifetime devoted to racing and, in particular, racing in Maryland, he seemed almost omnipresent at Pimlico in the days leading up to the Preakness. This week, tradition demands that Super Saver be quartered in the first stakes-barn stall, reserved for the Derby winner. Following tradition, D. Wayne Lukas will return with his horses to the far end of the barn; Nick Zito prefers the other side of the narrow, green structure. The other Preakness combatants will occupy the connecting expanse that for so many years was Lang's domain, first as Pimlico's director of racing, then as vice president and general manager, followed by various other roles, the last being a racing analyst for the Baltimore radio station WBAL, where he contributed mightily to several award-winning productions. When dawn gatherings of media, horsemen and tourists set the dusty Pimlico backstretch abuzz with anticipation this week, Lang, usually dressed in a safari jacket covered by pins from a lifetime of racetracks and big days, will be conspicuous by his absence.
Chick Lang, who died of natural causes at age 83 on March 18, lived for this week and most of all Preakness Day. The modern Preakness is his legacy. He is "Mr. Preakness" for eternity.
Chick Lang, then a 12-year-old, saw Seabiscuit beat War Admiral from the roof of the jockeys' room. He also saw eight Triple Crown winners move a step closer to immortality at Pimlico. He was born in the neighborhood where the crown jewel of a life spent devoted to racing, horses and the people attached to them is run on the third Saturday of May. And he was the last of a breed of racing executives who came from within the game, not on the recommendation of a corporate headhunter. He was a man who recognized that this is not a job but a lifestyle, a culture apart from the real world. He knew everyone in the game, the famous, infamous and anonymous by their first names and could tell a story -- or many -- about most. "It's my world and the only one I ever wanted," Lang once told writer Snowden Carter.
Lang, his life choices probably genetically inevitable, was the third of three generations of racing Langs known as "Chick." His father, a jockey, rode Reigh Count to victory in the 1928 Kentucky Derby and is a member of the Canadian Hall of Fame. His grandfather owned racehorses. His great grandfather, John P. Mayberry trained Judge Himes, the Kentucky Derby winner of 1903. Lang's formative years were spent traveling from racetrack to racetrack, learning the game and the lessons only experience provides at every stop and at the knees of the sport's luminaries including the Jones Boys of Calumet Farm. His formal education was over after the 11th grade but Lang never ceased to absorb the lessons taught only on the backstretch. Late in life, there was no development, event or crisis in the racing business for which he was unable to provide perspective. By that time, Lang had seen it all.
After a failed attempt to become an exercise rider and another brief training career -- Lang started runners in three races at Hialeah Park in 1947, winning two and finishing second with the other -- he took up the books of jockeys John Tammaro and the volatile Bill Hartack. The hot-tempered Hartack won the Kentucky Derby three times and set his course to the Hall of Fame while Lang was his agent. However, it was on the front-side of Pimlico, the executive suite, where Lang would forge his ever-enduring legend.
He was named director of racing at Pimlico in1960, an appointment that would forever change the face and profile of the second leg of the Triple Crown, an event that, he said at the time, was dying in the shadow of the Derby and Belmont Stakes.
Lang, in search of public attention and newspaper ink, took the Preakness to Louisville with a series of publicity stunts that irked Churchill Downs officials, delighted witnesses and occasionally attracted the attention of Federal officials. He once released yellow and black balloons that said "Next stop, Pimlico" from a hotel room overlooking the route of the Pegasus parade and purchased advertising space on Louisville busses that carried the same message.
"One year, I took counterfeit $10 bills to Louisville," Lang said in a 1975 interview with the Maryland Horse magazine. "They looked amazingly real except that on the reverse side they said: 'Come to Pimlico, where the real money is.' The Treasury Department grabbed me on that one and seemed quite upset. They even went to our printer in Baltimore and destroyed the plates."
Eventually Lang's tireless efforts were joined by local officials, an alliance that turned the Preakness into a week-long municipal festival. He first opened the Pimlico infield to fans on Preakness Day of 1965, when he brought a busload of his daughter's friends to the infield to watch the races and watched the celebration evolve into a collegiate rite of passage in the Mid-Atlantic. Year after year, attendance, betting handle and media coverage of the Preakness grew under Lang's energetic stewardship with assistance from his promotional imagination.
There was no funeral for Chick Lang. That was his wish. Pimlico, which held a memorial observance on opening day of the spring meeting, was his place of worship and, as he wished, his ashes were scattered over the infield, near the spot where a blanket of ersatz black-eyed Susans will be draped over the withers of the Preakness winner on Saturday. A race named for one of his mentors, Hirsch Jacobs, has been renamed in Lang's honor and will be run on the supporting card, but Preakness week at Pimlico is a bit different without the stocky, crew-cut presence that seems always to have been an integral part of this scene: The first Preakness without "Mr. Preakness."
Chick Lang may be gone, but his aura lingers at Pimlico on the third Saturday of May. And as long as the Preakness remains anchored at the uniquely tattered, down at the heels racetrack in Baltimore, the memory of Mr. Preakness will endure and bring a smile to anyone fortunate enough to have crossed his path.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.